Naguib Mahfouz's Children of the Alley (Part 2) : Existential Allegory in the Muslim World

"The cultural encounter with the West was not a new experience for Egypt nor for the Arab world. . . .before the flowering of Islamic culture, Egypt had been exposed to far-reaching influences from the cultures of India, Persia, Greece and the Mediterranean seaboard, not to mention that of ancient Egypt. All these encounters with other worlds were rewarding and enriched our traditional identity and classical culture. They added vigour to our living organism rather than impoverishing it or inhibiting its development. . . . We have passed through a number of stages in this respect, the first of which was the translation of European works into our language. The second stage was the adaptation of those works and their integration into our environment, in other words the "Egyptianization" of an alien cultural product. The third stage is that of maturity, when a writer's own personality attains its full self-expression.

"The progress made by science and technology has not always been negative. It has been of immense service to mankind. Of course there are some destructive aspects, but I think that this process of dehumanization can be fought with the aid of two great forces: religion and art. Through these forces it is possible to turn scientific progress to human advantage. But I insist on the fact that there is no need to be afraid of scientific progress; science and technology are capable of correcting their own mistakes. One example can be seen in current efforts to produce non-pollutant energy. Progress cannot be stopped, but we must not surrender to panic. I am optimistic that science, guided by a sense of awareness, can constantly adjust its trajectory. Art and religion are there to lighten the way."
--Interview 1989

Naguib Mahfouz

General Discussion Questions

  1. When Mahfouz' book was published in serial form in 1959, it created such anger, that Mahfouz agreed to not publish it in Egypt in book form. In 1989, Omar Abdul-Rahman, the sheikh who had helped plan the first attack on the World Trade Center, while in a U.S. prison asserted that if Mahfouz had been punished for Children of the Alley, then Salman Rushdie would not have had the gal. to publish his The Satanic Verses. In 1994, one of the followers of Abdul-Rahman stabbed Mahfouz in the neck, which paralyzed one of Mahfouz's arms for the reminder of his life. Why do you think his book creates such fundamentalist rage?
  2. Should Mahfouz be seen primarily as an Egyptian writer rather than an Islamic one? Why or why not?
  3. Likewise, is Mahfouz's work too Western? Why would his critics see his fiction as co-opted by Western hegemony? By modernism in general?
  4. Mahfouz has sometimes said in the past that his work explores the poles of faith, love, and politics, but that politics is strangely the most essential. Is Children of the Alley a political novel? If so, what is its message?
  5. Would you agree with Mahfouz's thoughts above about science? Moreover, is his position above reflected in part five of the novel? Explain.
  6. Can Mahfouz's Children of the Alley be read as a post-colonial novel? Why or why not?

Parts IV & V

Parallels with Mohammed

  • Childhood as orphan and early life
  • Marriage to his first wife, Khadijah
  • Early revelations and the Angel Gabriel
  • Those who first believe
  • Mohammed's view of women
  • Other marriages, including Aisha
  • Initial hostility
  • First martyrs
  • Flight to Medina (Hijra)
  • Siege at Medina
  • Return to Mecca
  • Establishment of the Muslim state
  • Disagreement after Mohammed's death

Questions (Qassem)

  1. How does Qassem compare with Islamic beliefs about Mohammed?
  2. How does he compare with Gabal and Rifaa?
  3. What is Qassem's message?
  4. What does Mahfouz's overall view of him seem to be?


  1. How does Arafa compare with the other four key characters who have gone before him?
  2. How does he view Gabalawi at first? Why does he change his mind about him?
  3. What is his view of science (magic)? What motivates his use of it?
  4. What does the novel suggest about science and politics?
  5. What about the bomb (the bottles)?
  6. About modernity--work and leisure, technology. etc.?
  7. What is the point of Gabalawi's death?
  8. Is the ending of the novel ironic?


The five main characters are alike in the following ways:

  • Each must leave in order to return
  • Each encounters Gabalawi, though each encounter seems less empirically assured than the previous ones.
  • Each has a message that the people put their hope in
  • Each is successful only for a season
  • Each response to the past in some fashion
  • Each encounters resistance

Question: What is significant about this pattern? What does it reveal about the novel's themes and overall viewpoint?